As Jonathan Wilson points out:
"Football used to be an easy game. The big lads played at centre-half and centre-forward, the hard lads played at full-back, the bright lads played at inside forward, the hard lads who were a bit bright and the bright lads who were a bit hard played at wing-half, and the little, quick lads played on the wing. Left-footers played on the left and right-footers played on the right. And the one with no mates went in goal."
What we are going to talk about today is the wingers, the "quick lads" as it were.
It seems as though this has already become a point of contention in this young 2011 Sounders season. Last year we learned two things: Sigi believed in the "quick lads" approach, and Steve Zakuani is pretty important.
Already this year we have seen what the attack looks like with one, and then none, wingers who "play with their legs" as I like to call it: essentially a player who is going to make use of speed as a primary asset and run AT defenders, and not hold the ball up and seek out space. An example of the latter is Alvaro Fernandez, who as the right winger has demonstrated his skill, but is not someone who plays with his legs.
Last year, we all cringed at times at Sanna Nyassi's "technical naivete" as as I liked to call it. His slight frame was all to often easily forced off the ball, he seemed to just want to dribble in a straight line as fast as he could every time he got the ball, and he ended too many runs with sub-par crosses. Despite all this, his running served a positive overall effect. It created space, it created opportunity. He may have had little to offer apart from "playing with his legs" but he certainly provided his fill of that.
Contrast last year's "speed on the wings" to what we saw Saturday evening against NYRB and the difference is stark. Neither Erik Friberg nor Fernandez seemed at all interested in "playing with their legs" and with two CDM's manning the middle, the whole affair seemed to lack energy and dynamism. While this all may have been Sigi's grand plan, it looked plodding to me. (and yet, despite all this, there were opportunities to score that went wasted...)
There are some important elements preventing an immediate alleviation to this problem. While we can be pretty confident Zakuani will be back, this team is also a bit short-handed in the attack at the moment. Nate Jaqua may return soon, but we are a few weeks out from seeing Mike Fucito back, and if we want more speed he seems the logical man to turn to. Fernandez seems to be the man at the right wing, and it is unlikely this will change. Lamar Neagle, Miguel Montano, and David Estrada are all names in the mix, but none is a likely League starter.
What do we want out of the wings?
It turns out that defining what a winger is and how he fits into the contemporary game is pretty hard - believe me, I've tried. I've talked about inverted wingers and there is even the idea of "central wingers" but the common thread is the idea of the "wide play-maker", and this agrees with the idea of the de-centralization of the playmaker. De-centralization both in terms of positional and personnel: which is to say it is no longer an idea of "that guy" who lives somewhere in the middle of the pitch.
Its best summed up as someone who can dribble, pass, shoot, in no particular order. But that seems simplistic; you would like it if everyone on your team can do that, obviously. Another way to look at it is that the wings are where the dribblers have gone, these are the guys who are going to run at and take on defenders; this being more possible on the wings due to there being less congestion on the flanks.
You can also look at it as a inevitable consequence of the "bucket 4-4-2", in which central midfielders become holders and outside mids attackers, verging on 4-2-2-2 (and, if the 2nd striker drops off to become more of a CAM, a 4-2-3-1). In a "bucket" the shape dictates that these players are the playmakers in the system, operating wide but cutting inside as needed. In the World Cup, the USA used this approach in their starting lineups with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as wide playmakers, with two central holders and two strikers up top. They were the engines in the attack, as well as the primary goal threats.
But as we saw last year, sometimes it just helps to be a "quick lad". In his 86 minutes last Tuesday, Zakuani twice fed O'Brian White for what should have been goals. He was the best attacking player in green, and he didn't always seem to do the smartest thing with the ball. His willingness to run at defenders, to play with his legs, can be audacious at times, almost naively so. But it works...
It seems as though what we should expect out of the wingers this year is still and will continue to evolve. Any long-term loss of Zakuani may constitute a crisis, or we may see Michael Tetteh or Fucito contribute as "quick lads". I wouldn't de-emphasize this, though. It may be that Fernandez is best suited for a more central role, it could be that Friberg - despite looking lost on the left Saturday - may end up flourishing on the right. It's hard to say. But if the Sounders are going to unlock the mystery to scoring goals I think they are going to need to turn the switch to hyper-agressive: I think they are going to need to unleash the "quick lads".